Surge in anonymous Twitter accounts sparks bot fears

FRENCH PRESS AGENCY - AFP
HONG KONG
Published 23.04.2018 00:00

It has been jokingly referred to as "Botmageddon". But a surge in new, anonymous Twitter accounts across swathes of Southeast and East Asia has deepened fears the region is in the throes of U.S.-style mass social media manipulation. Maya Gilliss-Chapman, a Cambodian tech entrepreneur currently working in Silicon Valley, noticed something odd was happening in early April. Her Twitter account @MayaGC was being swamped by a daily deluge of follows from new users.

"I acquired well over 1,000 new followers since the beginning of March. So, that's approximately a 227 percent increase in just a month," she told AFP. While many might delight in such a popularity spike, Gilliss-Chapman, who has previously worked for tech companies to root out spam, was immediately suspicious. The vast majority of these new accounts contained no identifying photograph and had barely tweeted since their creation.

But they all seemed to be following prominent Twitter users in Cambodia including journalists, business figures, academics and celebrities. She did some digging and published her findings online, detailing how the vast majority of accounts were recently created in batches by unknown operators who worked hard to hide their real identities. She wasn't alone. Soon prominent Twitter users in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka noticed the same phenomenon -- a surge in follows from anonymous, recently created accounts, adopting local sounding names but barely engaging on the platform, as if lying in wait for someone's command. The issue of fake users is hugely sensitive for Twitter because a crackdown could severely dent its roughly 330 million audience -- the company's main selling point. In a 2014 report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Twitter estimated some 5-8.5 percent of users were bots.

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